The story so far … We started this series with the feeding of the five thousand and a crowd so impressed that Jesus has to run away so they won’t try and make him a rebel King on the spot. But the crowd find him the next day and Jesus challenges them that they aren’t interested in the sign he has given them but only in the chance to get fed. OK they say so what’s this sign going to be? It is a sign already given, says Jesus, bread that satisfies more than your bellies, living bread fresh from heaven, that will give life a new vitality which cannot be taken away — not even by death. The crowd replies in one voice — Give us some! Yes, give us some of that! And then Jesus ruins it all by claiming that he, himself, is the living bread. Uproar! He feeds the flames. You have to eat my flesh and drink my blood. At which point departs the crowd angry, disappointed, disillusioned, … hungry.
But his disciples remain disappointed, disillusioned, and—today—murmuring: “These are hard words … you’d have to be mad to swallow them.” To which Jesus asks, “Am I a scandal to you? Am I a stumbling block?” And says, John, because of this many of his disciples turned back and stopped walking with him. The crowd has thinned out … Jesus turns to the Twelve: “What about you? Are you also going to leave me?”
A story that started out with signs and wonders comes down to this: to him. Not miracles, not signs, not food, not even doctrine — but to a question … who are you going to walk your days with? Who are you going to choose as your God?
It’s the same question Joshua poses to the Israelites: “decide today whom you will serve.” Who will be your God?
The Israelites as Joshua describes them are gung-ho for God. Adonai is our God. And John writes that Peter speaks for the Twelve when he says “Lord, Adonai, where else could we go? We trust you.”
Is that the way the story ends? Imagine how the TV would do this scene with close-up and long shot. With Jesus a semi-tragic figure, abandoned by so many at the peak of his success, left by his most of his followers, so that just the faithful few cluster around him in the space emptied by so many departures. And the Twelve, some sort of heroes, staying with him, accepting their fate with him, because they alone trust him. Is that the way the story ends?
Not quite. John has his doubts. For a start there’s something fishy about the words Peter uses to express faith in Jesus. “You are the Holy One of God,” he says. That’s a phrase found no where else in John’s gospel and in the other gospels only ever in the mouths of demons. Recognition isn’t everything. Even the devil can declare his faith in Jesus. All the black and white is grey.
Look at the Twelve who remain with Jesus or at least say they will. Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and ten others who will run away. What do we make of that? Of their promise, of their trust?
Only this: for centuries, for millenia, the choice is offered to human beings freely: who will you choose to walk with? who will be your God? The choice is offered freely without compulsion. Just the offer of something unimaginable, better than belief, stronger than wine, firmer than flesh, deeper than life. “Do you want it?” is the question.
But if the question is freely offered the answer is freely received. The Yes is taken a face value, taken in good faith—even if we are betrayers, deniers or plain cowards. And that is our salvation. That we so often speak words which are better than our lives. We are constantly urged to choose well who to take after, who to walk with and our answers are sometimes better than we are. But God believes us when perhaps we don’t believe ourselves.
We say “Yes Lord we believe,” and we are believed. We say “Yes Lord we trust,” and we are trusted. “Yes Lord we have faith,” and God has faith in us. And God’s faith in us gives us the space to go beyond betrayal, denial and cowardice into the land of life and living. We might trust Jesus more with our lips than our hearts but he trusts us with his life and that trust opens up a world where we can become witnesses, faithful witnesses, beloved disciples, heroic friends.
August 24th, 1997
To live forever! It seems it might even be possible. You can indeed die but live forever … or at least twenty years … if you’re Elvis Presley that is. The King is dead. Long live the King! The TV this week’s been full of Elvis reanimated on celluloid and reincarnated in corpulent and impersonated flesh. The papers have been outdoing each other with humorous or weighty articles on twenty years of a modern myth—a legendary life that captured his era, a mysterious and degrading death, and now a spirit that lives on — at least in the hearts of fans and the pocket books of an industry devoted to his memory and memorabilia. Did you know that $80 could get you a matched pair of Elvis and Barbie dolls — with real wiggling hips!?
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, it seems the Mediterranean Sea is being taken over by a mutated Pacific seaweed. Delicate in its natural habitat, this weed was used in a German aquarium for its refined beauty. So beautiful in fact that one aquarium shared with another, and another, until in Monaco the Oceanographic Museum when it went out of business emptied its tanks into the sea and this once tender plant, exposed to years of UV light and aquarium chemicals, has been taking over and poisoning the local sea-life. “Nothing can stop it,” went the headlines. It seems that even the trivial things we do, like prettying up our fish tanks, have real and global consequences.
Back in the US, an impact of more modest, but more grisly, proportions: check you freezer for any of the 5 million hamburger patties—that’s over 500 tons of not-so-prime beef—which have been recalled for being contaminated with e coli bacteria. Which is a nice way of saying they’re full of feces. Which is a nice way of saying … well you get my drift! So watch that next trip to the golden arches because you are what you eat. Fast food has its own flesh-and-blood consequences — from fast food-poisoning through slow clogging of the arteries to starving children in the horn of Africa.
“Wisdom has built her house … she has dressed her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table.” From the Elvis who now lives in some pseudo-spiritual realm, via the flesh-and-blood realities of our activity in this world, we come here to the table. Our Host, Wisdom, is quite a character. A person in her own right. Sophia, as the Greek text of Proverbs calls her, was there at the right hand of God at the creation of the world when she danced and played in the very ecstasy of crafting something beautiful. And here she is today laying out a banquet for whoever needs her help. Setting out the meat and pouring the wine that leads to life. “Aha! Just like Jesus,” we think, breaking the bread and spilling the wine of eucharist. But there’s more to the comparison than that. When the first believers reflected on who Jesus, their dead but living friend, could be, when they tried to figure out how Jesus was related to Adonai, the God of their ancestors, they turned to the resources of their Jewish faith. And they found there Sophia, Wisdom, ready-made—present with God before the world began, intimately involved with all creation, and setting the table of life for all to share. So one of the very first Biblical ways of understanding Jesus was not as King, not as Master, but as a woman, as Lady Wisdom, come down from heaven in the flesh. It’s an image that quickly got dressed up in men’s clothing but it’s there just under the surface if you look for it. God as She as well as He. My mother says, “I don’t care what you say he’ll always be a he to me.” Surely God is beyond flesh, beyond gender, beyond sex. After all God is spirit isn’t he … she …it?
Well in the teeth of all our attempts to rob God of a body and keep the Divine “It” at a spiritual distance—in the teeth of all that—we have eucharist and we have gospel. “The bread I am going to give, for the life of the world, is my flesh.” “My flesh is real food and my blood real drink.” We try to go one way—from flesh to spirit—but God always goes the opposite direction. We talk of metaphors and symbols but God is distressingly literal, even naive. The eucharist we will shortly share is the very opposite of a symbol. The meal we eat is Jesus’ flesh and blood but not by magic. He made bread, flesh, and wine, blood, by putting his flesh and blood on the line. He spoke the words and made them true with his body, by having it snatched from him: broken, battered, bleeding, … dead.
The bread and wine we eat is only our sacrifice because flesh and blood were his.
Why do we come and eat and drink together like this? Why don’t we stay at home and meditate or do good deeds? Only because Jesus made flesh and blood out of wine and words. We come to eat our words … and his. We come to lay down our flesh and blood, here, for each other’s consumption and for the life of the world. After all a sacrifice of words is nothing. It’s the world that matters—to God and to us. Flesh and blood, seaweed and ground beef, the oceans, the air, people, bodies, breath and breathing. For these … for us … Jesus made a sacrifice of his body. Gave it like bread so that we might feed on him and have life—life enough to lay down, so that the whole world might live.
August 17th, 1997